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A brief history of humanist environmentalism

Who more than the humanists should recognise that human life cannot be independent of nature? With no immortal soul and no hope of a kingdom not of this world, the humanist must accept the fact that he has one life, one world.

Don Marietta, ‘Ecological Humanism’ in the New Humanist (Autumn 1979)

In spite of criticisms by some that the humanist philosophy is anthropocentric – placing human concerns above nature and other sentient creatures – such claims overlook a strong tradition of humanist environmental and animal rights activism, both on the part of individuals and within the organised humanist movement as a whole.

These humanist calls for action on the environment have been rooted in the fundamental belief not of human superiority, but human responsibility: the idea that what makes us distinctive as humans also makes us uniquely equipped to act rationally and ethically when it comes to environmental concerns. As affirmed in the 2022 Amsterdam Declaration, a statement of modern humanism, humanists have ‘a duty of care to all of humanity, including future generations, and beyond this to all sentient beings’, and ‘recognise that we are part of nature,’ accepting ‘responsibility for the impact we have on the rest of the natural world’.

This world, says the Humanist, is man’s responsibility, and most things that happen here, whether good or bad, reflect man’s use or abuse of that responsibility.

Barbara Smoker, ‘What’s This Humanism?’ c. 1970
Barbara Smoker, Bishopsgate Institute Archives

In a 1979 article published in The New Humanist, American humanist Don Marietta wrote:

Who more than the Humanists should recognise that human life cannot be independent of nature? With no immortal soul and no hope of a kingdom not of this world, the Humanist must accept the fact that he has one life, one world. That one world must be shared with all other human beings and all other living species. There is no separate human ecology. With increasing knowledge of the interdependence of life forms and the fragility of the life support systems of all species Humanists must think ecologically. Rationality demands ecological Humanism…

As alluded to by Marietta, the central features of the humanist approach logically give rise to a sense of environmental responsibility, something traceable throughout history and underpinned by advances in scientific understanding. In the same article, Marietta pointed out a worthy tradition of humanists (long before the modern environmentalist movement) ‘expressing an appreciation of nature and the realisation that man is an inseparable part of’ it – among them Patrick Geddes, H.G. Wells, and Julian Huxley. But this lineage goes back even further.

Mencius in Half Portraits of the Great Sage and Virtuous Men of Old, Yuan dynasty (1279-1368)

The ancient world had various philosophical traditions emphasising human oneness and reciprocity with nature, including living frugally and in line with the natural world – such as advocated by the Epicureans. In other examples, nature analogies were used as means of better understanding the human condition, as in the case of Mencius’ Bull Mountain, in which the state of an over-exploited mountain illustrates the erosion of a person’s innate goodness.

And seeing it thus gaunt and bare, people imagine that it was woodless from the start. Now just as the natural state of the mountain was quite different from what now appears, so too in every man (little though they may be apparent) there assuredly were once feelings of decency and kindliness; and if these good feelings are no longer there, it is that they have been tampered with, hewn down with axe and bill… Truly, ‘If rightly tended, no creature but thrives. If let untended, no creature but pines away.’

Mencius (Meng Tzu), translated by Arthur Waley, in The Humanist Anthology, ed. Margaret Knight

Humanist environmentalism in the 19th century

Although this history reaches much further back than the 19th century, partly as a response to the rapid industrialisation of the period, it is then that we see a conscious outpouring of ideas both of natural awe and a drive for preservation. Reacting to issues like increasing pollution, the enclosure of formerly common land, and the ill-effects of industrialisation, freethinkers including P.B. Shelley, William Morris, and John Stuart Mill pioneered new approaches to the natural world.

Among the founders of the oldest conversation organisation in Britain, The Open Spaces Society (founded as the Commons Preservation Society) in 1865 were John Stuart Mill and George Lefevre, Baron Eversley. Mill was open in his lack of religious belief. In fact, he described himself as ‘one of the very few examples, in this country, of one who has, not thrown off religious belief, but never had it’. Eversley was a Liberal Party politician, who advocated the abolition of church rates and the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland. Alongside others, including the artist, poet, and socialist William Morris, through the Commons Preservation Society, they were instrumental in securing areas of land across the country for common enjoyment.

Lantern slide showing Epping Forest, from the archive of the Open Spaces Society (formerly the Commons Preservation Society, est. 1865)

Among the major victories of the Society was the saving of Epping Forest for common use, and it was there that another expression of 19th century humanist environmental consciousness took shape. The early organised humanist movement – the ethical societies – drew much on nature – including on the writings and ideas of the English Romantics, and American transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Some of these they set to music and used as ‘ethical hymns’, while others they adopted as readings during meetings. Once such ethical society was The Forest Group, which met in Epping Forest for rambles, open air meetings, and performances – or ‘sylvan scenes’. A description of the Forest Group in Gustav Spiller’s The Ethical Movement in Great Britain, explained how:

Such meetings developed thoughts on living in accord with nature…

[On their] saunterings naturalists showed the ways of plants and animals in their homes, natural objects being looked at for their own message, without bias of good or ill. Such first-hand acquaintance with living beings brought understanding and sympathy and a widening outlook on life. More definite knowledge came in conducted tours to the Natural History Museum.

Epigraph in Marius Deshumbert’s An Ethical System Based on the Laws of Nature, 1917

The concept of learning from nature, drawing on poetic representations of the natural world, and drawing strength from it was taken further by Marius Deshumbert – who developed An Ethical System Based on the Laws of Nature – and founded the Ethics of Nature Society. He wrote that:

The fundamental error of most philosophers, moralists, and founders of religion has been their failure to understand that man is a constituent part of the Universe, an integral portion of Nature and of the Whole. They, on the contrary, thought of man as a being apart, whose “soul’”’ was not subject to the laws of Nature, a being whose “Psyche ”’ was outside and above material forces and without any connection with the Universe. They did not see that as Nature comprises everything that exists… mankind is necessarily subject to the same laws as the rest of the Universe.

Deshumbert’s thinking echoed a wider shift taking place during the 19th century, hastened by the Darwinian disruption of the idea of a ‘great chain of being’, and challenges to biblical ideas of mankind’s dominion. Instead, notions of a ‘web of life’ – in which everything was connected to everything else – were gaining strength.

Scientific advances had implications not just on the understanding of origins and evolution, but also of human impact, as in the case of global warming and climate change. It was Darwin’s scientific colleague and fellow agnostic John Tyndall who, in 1859, first tested the gases in the atmosphere to find out which are responsible for the greenhouse effect (though three years after American scientist Eunice Newton Foote had discovered that carbon dioxide and water vapour cause air to warm in sunlight).

Humanist activism in the 20th century

In a letter written to congratulate the Humanitarian League on its 20th anniversary, writer and humanist Thomas Hardy – gesturing again towards the profound impact of evolutionary theory – suggested that ‘the most far-reaching consequence of the establishment of the common origin of all species is ethical’. Human beings could now be viewed as a part of, rather than apart from, nature and the animal world, and for many this had implications for the treatment of animals.

Humanist activists Peter Draper and Brigid Brophy. Bishopsgate Institute Archives

Writer, campaigner, and humanist Henry Stephens Salt founded the Humanitarian League in 1891 to advocate for a range of humane reforms – from the abolition of capital punishment to greater concern for animal welfare. He had published A Plea for Vegetarianism in 1886, and was deeply inspired by the environmentalist philosophy of Henry David Thoreau, whose biography Salt wrote.

Defining himself as a rationalist, Salt proposed a humanist ‘creed of kinship’, predicated on the ultimate duty of humankind to protect the vulnerable, to care for one another, and to demonstrate their claimed ‘civilisation’ in the way they engaged with nature and treated animals. Such arguments were being echoed by humanists in generations to come, including by the author, activist, and vegan Brigid Brophy, who argued in the 1970s that:

We are the species uniquely capable of imagination, rationality and moral choice – and that is precisely why we are under an obligation to recognise and respect the rights of animals.

In the 1978 article for The Humanist, she too nodded to Darwin, writing: ‘We have known since 1859 that we are animals too.’

Ecological humanism

First page of People First, published by the British Humanist Association (now Humanists UK) in 1972, urging action on environmental issues

Within the British Humanist Association (now Humanists UK), in keeping with wider societal awareness and response, environmentalism saw an apparent peak in the 1970s, with the publication of People First in 1972, and recommendations for living more sustainably. The concern with population growth – a key part of People First – echoed scientific discourse at the time, but that had been prevalent from the late 18th–19th century in Malthusianism. Malthusianism and neo-Malthusianism rested on the belief that demand for resources would outstrip supply as the population grew ‘unchecked’. These ideas had influenced a number of early non-religious proponents of birth control and could – and did – stray for some into eugenic thinking and attitudes we would wholly disavow today, and which were challenged by some at the time. In 1972’s People First, alongside explicit concerns over population growth, ideas about better attitudes toward the environment were given centre stage:

We must change our attitudes. We need cooperation, not coercion. We must reject exploitation and work with the environment and with humanity. In our dealings with the environment we need foresight, imagination and a better scientific understanding of the interdependence of man and the rest of nature.

People First, 1972
CEI Annual Meeting with Barry Commoner (right) and Pete Seeger, held at the Ethical Society of Saint Louis Community Center, 1970. Committee For Environmental Information Records, S0069. S0069_1, The State Historical Society of Missouri, Photograph Collection

It should be noted that not everyone accepted without question the idea and implications of the overpopulation thesis. Prominent American humanist and environmentalist Barry Commoner, who was awarded the International Humanist of the Year Award in 1970, was particularly vociferous in his opposition to the idea that overpopulation was to blame for environmental destruction and over-pollution, arguing that it was unsustainable and harmful production practices which were at fault. He used the analogy of forcing people overboard to lighten the load of a leaking ship, rather than asking what’s wrong with it:

We are throwing humanity overboard rather than face the serious issues of changing the way in which we are living in the world.

Another prominent humanist voice during these years was Peter Draper: a doctor, public health researcher, and Chair of the British Humanist Association. For Draper, humanists (as individuals and as an organised body) had a responsibility to apply their philosophy to the world at large, and to carefully examine that world in order to do so. Draper saw a central role for humanists in being – and creating – responsible citizens. In this, active concern for the role of the media, the state of the environment, the effectiveness of education, and the political system, were all key. Draper was an enthusiastic member of a number of organisations with broad social change in mind, including Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. He was also a Vice President of Green Party predecessor the Ecology Party.

Ecologist and entomologist E.O. Wilson by Jim Harrison, 2003. Licensed CC BY 2.5

Pioneering environmentalists and ecologists

The humanist tradition is by no means short of pioneering ecologists and environmentalists, both within and outside of the organised humanist movement. Many leading environmentalists have been publicly associated with the humanist movement, including:

  • Pioneering environmentalist Murray Bookchin (1921– 2006)
  • Biologist and naturalist E.O. Wilson (1929– 2021)
  • Founder of environmental research organisation Worldwatch Institute and The Earth Policy Institute, Lester R. Brown (b. 1934)
  • Animal rights advocate Peter Singer (b. 1946)

What, after all, is human society when we try to view it from an ecological perspective? A “curse”? An unmitigated “blessing”? A “device” for coping with material needs? Or, dare I say, a product of natural evolution as well as culture that not only meets a wide variety of human needs, but, potentially at least, can play a major role in fostering the evolution of life on the planet?

Murray Bookchin, Remaking Society: Pathways to a Greener Future (1990)

Another significant humanist ecologist was leading conservationist E.M. Nicholson, who founded the British Trust for Ornithology, the World Wildlife Fund, Nature Conservancy, and Earthwatch Europe. With Julian Huxley, Nicholson also helped to found the Scientific International Union for Conservation of Nature (now the International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN) in the 1940s. Like Huxley’s vision for UNESCO, the IUCN was rooted in humanist principles. As expressed in the organisation’s World Conservation Strategy (1980), deliberate conservation was both a ‘rational response’ and an ‘ethical imperative’.

Conservation’s concern for maintenance and sustainability is a rational response to the nature of living resources (renewability + destructibility) and also an ethical imperative, expressed in the belief that “we have not inherited the earth from our parents, we have borrowed it from our children”.

World Conservation Strategy, IUCN (1980)
James Hemming, c. 1970. Bishopsgate Institute Archives

In 1999, celebrating his 90th birthday at Conway Hall, educationist and former President of Humanists UK James Hemming delivered a characteristically hopeful, and quintessentially humanist, speech, titled ‘What’s the World Coming To?’ In it, he emphasised the responsibility – and possibility – of humankind, echoing the essence of a slogan he had playfully offered up years earlier: ‘Caring, Cooperation, and Cosmic Responsibility’. In a clarion call for for environmental, moral, and thoughtful living, he said:

We humans now have the power to destroy life on Earth as well as to bring it to fulfilment. This is now the primary global issue. How are we to create a caring and collaborative world? This needs a shared philosophy to sustain it… That something is a caring, creative and coherent Humanism, dedicated to carrying life forward on our beautiful little planet.

Successive Humanist Manifestos have emphasised ‘our dependence on and responsibility for the natural world’ (Amsterdam Declaration, 2002), ‘a planetary duty to protect nature’s integrity, diversity, and beauty in a secure, sustainable manner’ (Humanist Manifesto III, 2003), and that when it comes to addressing the urgent challenges of our times ‘while science provides the means, human values must define the ends’ (Amsterdam Declaration, 2022). Each of these elements have deep roots in the humanist thinking of centuries past.

Humanist Climate Action

Today, humanist groups across the world are taking action on environmental issues and climate concerns. In the UK, Humanist Climate Action (successor to Humanists for a Better World) work to promote environmentally friendly policies; to endorse and support the actions of other environmental campaigning groups; to challenge beliefs that are not evidence-based and disinformation about environmental issues; to encourage humanists to adopt greener lifestyles; and to ensure that the humanist voice is heard in religious or belief-led initiatives on environmental issues. As philosopher and activist Richard Norman has said:

Humanists know that we cannot look to a higher power to solve our problems for us. We have to take responsibility for our own lives, for the lives of others. We believe that this life is the one life we have, and similarly, this is the one planet we have. We are therefore all the more keenly aware that our finite human lives are given meaning and purpose by our membership of an ongoing human community and the legacy we bequeath to future generations.

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